Where Does the Expression White Elephant Come From?
Referring to something that you own as a “white elephant” means having something that is useless and burdensome. In general use a “white elephant” usually refers to an item that’s not useful (decorative) but may be expensive and odd.
At one time, rare white (albino) elephants were held sacred in Thailand. These elephants lived in special quarters and were treated with great care. White elephants are linked to Hindu cosmology as the mount of Indra, king of the Vedic deities, is Airavata, a white elephant.
White elephants are also intricately linked to Buddhist cosmology: the mount of Sakka’s (a Buddhist deity and ruler of the Tavatimsa heaven) is a three-headed white elephant named Airavata. Albino elephants exist in nature, usually being reddish-brown or pink.
The tradition derives from tales that associate a white elephant with the birth of the Buddha, as his mother was reputed to have dreamed of a white elephant presenting her with a lotus flower, a common symbol of wisdom and purity, on the eve of giving birth.
Because the animals were considered sacred and laws protected them from labor, receiving a gift of a white elephant from a monarch was simultaneously a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing because the animal was sacred and a sign of the monarch’s favour, and a curse because the recipient now had an expensive-to-maintain animal he could not give away and could not put to much practical use.
Owning a white elephant cost a great deal, but it was useless. Today, if we possess an item that is expensive to keep and yields little use, we may call it a “white elephant.” When the time comes to give a “white elephant” away, it may be hard to find anyone who wants it.
The expressions “white elephant” and “gift of a white elephant” came into common use in the middle of the nineteenth century. The phrase was attached to “white elephant swaps” and “white elephant sales” in the early twentieth century.
Many church bazaars held “white elephant sales” where donors could unload unwanted bric-a-brac, generating profit from the phenomenon that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Many organizational and church fairs still use the term today.